My critical edition of W. H. Auden’s long poem For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio is now available. It’s a beautiful poem, and it’s okay for me to say that because I didn’t write it.

Here is a brief excerpt from my introduction to the poem:

A few weeks after his mother’s death Auden moved to Ann Arbor to begin a year of teaching at the University of Michigan. By October Auden was drafting an application for a Guggenheim Fellowship in which he proposed to write “a long poem in several parts about Christmas, suitable for becoming the basis of a text for a large-scale musical oratorio.” (Asked to identify the project’s significance, he simply wrote, “There may still be much to be discovered about ways of combining language and music.”) If an operetta about Paul Bunyan written by two Englishmen [Auden and Benjamin Britten] had been a peculiar enterprise, a poem about Christmas might be thought even less promising: rescuing the validly sayable from a morass of sentimental associations and purely secular observances would be a difficult task indeed.

Yet Auden had come to believe that all the matters he was strenuously reassessing — art, community, erotic love, politics, psychology — had been fundamentally altered by a single event: the entry of God into human history, what Christians call the Incarnation. The Christ child, as every character agrees in the poem he would write, changes everything. And that radical disruption of the world, and therefore of all the things human beings typically think about the world, needed to be accounted for. Auden set about that task.